Music » Artist on Artist

Bill Kuehn of Rainer Maria on the emo revival, his lessons from the Middle East—and the possibility of a new record

The drummer for these freshly reunited emo luminaries talks to keyboardist and singer Kate Grube of Chicago upstarts Kittyhawk.


In the summer of 1995, bassist Caithlin De Marrais, guitarist Kyle Fischer, and drummer Bill Kuehn formed Rainer Maria—which would become one of the elite national acts of emo's second wave. De Marrais and Fischer had met in a poetry-writing workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the band toured the basement circuit and recorded frequently, with a sound that drew on the sort of emotive posthardcore whose lineage can be traced back to Sunny Day Real Estate. Soon they became key players in the burgeoning midwestern emo scene—and in the process they helped build fledgling downstate label Polyvinyl into a reliable indie-rock institution.

Rainer Maria outlasted the mash-note coziness of the 90s emo scene, moved to Brooklyn, and pushed their music toward accessible indie-pop edged with dramatic punk. They called it quits in 2006, but they've remained a source of inspiration for emerging bands, including wistful Texas trio Football, Etc. and uplifting Chicago outfit Kittyhawk. As more and more second-wave emo bands regroup to tour or release new music, Rainer Maria have climbed aboard too, playing a reunion show in New York this past New Year's Eve; the gig at Lincoln Hall on Saturday is their second reunion date.

Interviewing Kuehn for this week's Artist on Artist is Kittyhawk keyboardist and vocalist Kate Grube. In October, Michigan label Count Your Lucky Stars released the band's debut full-length, the alternately intimate and huge Hello, Again—one of my favorite emo albums of 2014. Leor Galil

Kate Grube: I've done a bit of traveling with the band Kittyhawk, and I spent a little time in Brooklyn on New Year's Eve [and] went to your show.

Bill Kuehn: Oh, amazing!

You guys in 2003 played Chicago at the Metro with Mates of State, and I remember really wanting to go, but—not to emphasize how much of a little kid I am—I was in eighth grade at the time. I really, really wanted my friend's older brother to take us, but he had a date. So I didn't get to go. That's how long I've been waiting.

Eighth grade! So were you going to shows regularly at that point?

I'm an only child, and I didn't have older friends to be like, "Oh, here's some cool rock music." So I would find out about it on my own. "Hey, here's a show, I wonder if my mom will let me go to a show alone." Which is, no. I'm so happy that you guys are playing again.

It's exciting for us, absolutely.

My boyfriend Evan [Weiss of Into It. Over It.] spoke to you about that [New Year's] show. You were wearing that really great all-white outfit.

[Laughter.] Thanks.

How did you decide that now was a good time to do this?

To wear white?

To play together again.

Oh, you're not talking about my outfit anymore! [Laughter.]

We had been receiving offers from people to play here and there over the past seven or eight years. But some of us had moved far away, some of us were very busy with other things—traveling, having a family, et cetera. But the three of us migrated back slowly to the same geographic area, New York City. And a couple more offers came in, and we all sat down and had dinner and discussed these offers and what we felt as far as where we were musically—because the thing about Rainer Maria is that when we started, we basically had just begun playing our instruments.

After Rainer Maria, when we did other projects, we grew—but we knew that if we were to get back together, there would be this very familiar thing, because we did start in our own individual musical infancies playing together as a group. We didn't say yes to any of the offers, but those were the impetus for us to start playing music again and writing songs again. And then we got to the point where we said, "Oh, maybe we would like to play some of these new songs out and also play some older songs too."

We are writing new songs, and if we record them that's great. But right now we're just having a lot of fun making new music.

Choosing also to play on two holidays, at least for your first two [shows]—are you playing more after this?

I don't know if there are enough holidays in the year for our next shows! But there are a few more in the works.

So you guys have played in Chicago quite a bit.

When we lived in Madison we would play there once a month. I remember going to the Fireside [Bowl] at least once a month to play.

Right. The scariest bathroom on the planet.

[Laughter.] Absolutely. In hindsight, seeing some of the photos of the Fireside—cosmetically it was a scary place. The people that ran it were super sweet, and everyone that came to the shows was so nice. I don't remember there ever being a problem with fights or drunken rowdiness. Everyone was always super respectful. I felt like it was a very safe environment. But yeah, it was pretty divey. Were you able to see a lot of shows there?

No, unfortunately it closed before I got to really know all about it. Most of what Chicago's been doing, as far as our indie-rock emo scene, has been just a lot of house-show venues. There was this place called Strangelight that was the basement of a storefront. Everyone that lived at the place lived upstairs, and they just made walls with whatever. The basement space was as big as a Chicago storefront—you could fit a lot of people in there. And everyone would get in through the back alley, so there was no obvious red flag to any passing police—who unfortunately just love to shut things down.

There's a lot of that happening in Brooklyn still. They stay open for a few years, then they get shut down—but then another one will pop up in its place. Those are the spaces that we started playing and played for years. I love those spaces because there's a real sense of community, because everyone does have to have a certain level of responsibility. Like you said, the cops can come at any moment, so if people keep it cool, you can have these amazing shows—bands who wouldn't be able to play Beat Kitchen or Lincoln Hall or Empty Bottle because they might not be big enough yet can have these venues. It's super valuable to the music community in any city.

You did a lot of full U.S. touring.

I think we did our first tour after we'd been together for two months, just because we wanted to get out and play shows. So we recorded a six-song demo tape, and then we went on the road six weeks later.

It's cool to go somewhere else in the country or in the world and do your thing and meet other people, like, "Oh, you're just like my other friend, from Chicago." Your little family has just been sort of duplicated in another place in the world, and it really kind of shrinks everything down to this tiny little city that happens to exist all over.

In New York there's been a huge influx of bands coming to the area over the past ten years. But I think as it gets more expensive to live here, a lot of bands are choosing to stay in their hometowns, and it's adding to a regional flavor that I think maybe disappeared for awhile.

When we'd tour in the 90s, you'd show up, and like you said, there would be these communities in each town, but they would have a very distinct flavor. You could say, "Oh, that's definitely a Pittsburgh band, they've got that Pittsburgh sound." Or "This Austin band, they have this Austin sound, it's gonna be so cool." And I think maybe that disappeared in the early aughts, but the more that I get out and play shows outside of New York, I have a sense that regionalism is returning, which is super inspiring. It all goes back to community.

How do you feel, being from the midwest, hearing the "midwest emo" thing pop up other places in the country? Are you stoked? Are you bored with it?

I'm definitely not bored with it. What's being tagged as an "emo revival" or people doing "emo" bands just maybe helps draw people in that might be familiar with that term. But in the end, if you're in a band, you're doing something original—you're writing original songs, you're doing something that no one's done before. Even if it's something I don't like, I appreciate people pretty much baring their souls.

Writing music is a very personal thing. And for them to be brave enough to put that out into the world for people to interpret and internalize and filter through their own lens, that takes a lot of courage. Hearing about pockets of something that I was a part of in the midwest popping up in other places, that's great. It means a lot to think that I was a part of something, or am a part of something, that's inspiring people in places I may have never even traveled to.

I have a midwest-specific question for you. Being from Wisconsin, have you ever gone to House on the Rock?

Yeah, of course! It was a school field trip for us.

I hadn't ever gone with school, but we went maybe two years ago, and I was totally blown away.

Yeah, it's very Wisconsin. And it's a bit surreal, but it's not presented in a way that's overshowy, like if you go to Ripley's in Hollywood or Madame Tussaud's in Times Square. I think it was either fifth or sixth grade; I'd never heard of it. When I showed up, I was just so wide-eyed and so blown away.

Do you get the chance to travel a lot?

Since Rainer Maria disbanded I've been playing in lots of bands, touring all over the world. I've lived in Paris and London and Glasgow for a while, playing in bands. I've actually been traveling a lot more internationally than I had the chance to with Rainer Maria.

I'm in three bands in New York—I think it's three or four—basically just writing music and living in the city. And then Rainer Maria writes up in Connecticut, so I go up to Connecticut once a week or once every couple.

What are your present projects?

I'm in a project called Les Bonhommes, with my friend Deron Pulley and Greg Saunier. Greg plays drums in Deerhoof. In this band he sings and plays guitar. Greg plays guitar the way he plays the drums, so if you know what Greg is like on the drums then you'll appreciate that.


And I'm in a rock 'n' roll band called Shining Mirrors with a couple Brooklyn guys, and that's really fun. Aside from that, there's a couple touring projects that I'm involved in, but that revolves. Being a drummer in New York City, there's always plenty of opportunities to jump in with people. Because studio space is at a premium, there's a lot of people writing on laptops or keyboards, and then when they get the music together and they get signed to a label, all of a sudden they have to go on tour and realize that they need a drummer. If you're a drummer living anywhere and you're looking for work, just come to New York City because we need you. Badly.

I wanted to know a little bit about your "writing in the barn" situation up in Connecticut.

Caithlin's parents' have a converted barn that's lofted. It's finished. And that's where we have our setup. So we'll go up there to write songs. When we first relocated to New York City in 1999, that's where we rehearsed for a few years, until we finally got a rehearsal place in the city. It's only a half hour by car or an hour by train. That's where A Better Version of Me was written and a good portion of Long Knives Drawn as well.

That's cool to hear that it's a finished barn, because everywhere you ever read about that, it just makes it seem like you guys are freezing to death inside.

[Laughter.] No, it has all mod cons. There's heat for the winter and AC for the summer. The house is right there, so there's a refrigerator and running water and all that good stuff. It's so much better than anyone has it in New York City as far as rehearsal spaces. It's incredible. Wildlife running through the backyard.

We just went to Europe, so I'm happy to talk to someone who's been touring there a lot, 'cause I feel a little bit like there was "Kate in a band before going abroad" and then me now, after, and I'm this new, wise-to-the-world person. I'm wondering if there are places specifically that you feel like were really life-­changing for you.

Oh gosh, everywhere I go. If I had to answer that, I guess our first time in Japan, because it was so otherworldly. It made a really strong impression. I don't think I slept for the first couple days I was there. Literally. You have jet lag anyway, so you can't sleep in the middle of the night. I just found myself wandering at all hours.

One place that I went to that wasn't on tour—I spent a fair amount of time traveling through the Middle East. It had a huge impact on the way I look at other cultures, because Middle Eastern culture is completely misrepresented. I had positive experiences—you know, staying with complete strangers for a week at a time. So that actually helped me with trying to throw away any kind of prejudice or preconceived notions of anything or anyone. I always thought I was open-minded, but after my time in the Middle East it's hard for me to judge anything. I'm just like, "I don't know." If someone asks my opinion about politics or religion or anything, I'm like, "I don't know, everybody's right."

That's a really good way of saying it—everybody's right, everybody's trying to find their own truth.

You do whatever is best for you and your living situation. So for anyone else to judge that is very difficult to justify.

But getting back to touring, I think it really made me grow as a person to be out meeting other people in other parts of the country and the world. And I feel like I did change for the better. I think everyone should travel, and I think it's one of the reasons why we did go on tour so much. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to be able to do that. As a career, it's unbelievable.

Do you enjoy being on tour?

I do really like it a lot. Sometimes being in such close proximity to other humans all day is a little bit exhausting, but that's maybe really good for me also—there's so many opportunities we miss just being in routines at home that force you to not socialize with other people or to block yourself off in your little Internet cave or whatever. And spending time with people you love that care about you, building trust with your travel companions and people that you stay with—it's a really healthy thing for your soul. And you don't notice that until you're without it. That's probably what I love the most. And just having little adventures—the Pez factory in Connecticut, if you haven't gone, is really hilarious and fun.

That's great!

I'm really looking forward to seeing you again.

It's a really great thing to be getting back to Chicago. Come and grab us, and we'll all hang out on Valentine's Day.

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